Lets say that two individuals approach another person and start asking him questions or ask him to do something (for instance leave an area). They do not make any explicit verbal threats. However, their posture, hostility, and body language all are used to physically intimidate the other person and make him afraid to refuse their request. (This is a one time incident, and not recurring harassment.)

Is the use of such implied physical intimidation to compel someone legal? If it isn't are there rules in place to decide what qualifies as implied intimidation? There must be some yardstick, otherwise anyone could claim they felt intimidated regardless of the intent of the person they were speaking to.

This is a question mainly asked out of curiosity, derived from my thinking of a situation over a year ago where three people decided that just because the child I was with was a different race then myself I must therefore be plotting to drag him away to a windowless van with the words "Free candy" written on its side. In that case the child's mother (my close friend) came over and sent them away, but it bothered me that they left muttering that I was"'lucky" as if my horrible crime of being a mentor for a child was something that clearly should have resulted in a worse fate then just being harassed by three men and accused of something that is obviously quite morally repugnant.)

I find myself curious what the laws would be about their trying to harass me into answering their questions. In this case they outnumbered me 3 to 1. Looking back I realize one man actually left to get the other two to back him before returning to harass me, and I feel there was a clear intent to physically intimidate me into answering their questions. The child confirmed he knew me and I was a family friend. At that point they continued to harass me both to explain my exact relationship to the child's mother (which I refused to, due to the personal nature of the relationship), give them my full name, and to take them to his mother.

I cooperated with them because I'm not one to cause trouble, and in particular did not wish to concern the child, but if I had chosen to be obstinate, or the mother wasn't available to appease them, what would the legal rules have been? Had a police officer came over that moment would he have been able to do anything about the others, despite their not verbally making a threat, based entirely on what I viewed as an implied threat?

1 Answer 1


No, it's not legal. This is the tort of assault, not to be confused with criminal assault. A tort of assault does not require actual contact, whereas some jurisdictions define criminal assault elements as those of battery; in others, it is an intended battery without the contact.

The elements of common law assault are:

  1. A positive, voluntary act
    You can't do this accidentally or negligently
  2. That intentionally causes reasonable apprehension in the plaintiff
    The person must reasonably apprehend contact. However, this is a subjective standard. If the plaintiff does not apprehend contact, then this element is not satisfied.
    Additionally, while words alone are rarely enough to satisfy this element, words in a certain tone, or with certain actions, may be. Also, verbal threats are not required for this element.
  3. Of immediate
    You can't assault someone by threatening them with something that'll happen in the future, if it's distant enough. Whether this is distant enough is decided on a case-by-case basis.
  4. Unlawful contact
    The contact needs to be unlawful and harmful.

In the situation you describe, a civil action in assault would have all requirements fulfilled. You might also succeed in pressing criminal charges, depending on the jurisdiction concerned.

Police officers generally have the power to maintain the peace, and an assault is most definitely a breach of the peace. Again, depending on the jurisdiction, they may have the power to detain them, or to ask them to move along, for example.

  • 4
    Actually, in some jurisdictions criminal assault doesn't require contact either.
    – cpast
    Commented Aug 11, 2015 at 22:26

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